Islington Education Commission
The Town Hall
13th April 2000
Dear Tim Brighouse,
I write to you in your capacity as chair of the Islington Education Commission and further to our meeting of 29th February. this letter is intended to be regarded as "evidence" on the subjects of the formation of an Islington Education Commission (IEC) and the effective provision of education services in Islington.
The NASUWT sees the establishment of the EIC in the light of a number of new processes, the review of local democracy in wake of the Local Government Bill in its passage through Parliament and the elected members' desire to retain some measure of control over the education service, the bulk of which has now been outsourced.
In changing times it is therefore essential to the education of Islington's children that there is a measure of consistency and stability in the direction schools receive. The EIC will have to be clear on its terms of reference, as will any Education Committee it reports to, as many of the functions of a traditional education service has now been delegated to others.
In considering remedies to the present situation, the supplied documents discuss the need to publicly promote Islington secondary schools as a choice for Islington children. The NASUWT wholeheartedly supports Islington in this. Each year only 60% of children educated in our primary schools go on to Islington's secondary schools, while some of the most able and, anecdotal evidence suggests, the best supported at home go out of borough. Islington secondaries will not feature highly in the league tables when its brightest children are effectively creamed off, nor will their parents wish to keep their children here while they hear only negative publicity.
In considering the means of improving results in Islington schools, NASUWT believes the borough's greatest resource is its skilled and committed teaching workforce. What is needed is continuity in those teachers employed so that good practice can be shared and built on and relationships built so that schools are stable learning environments. At present the high turnover of staff constantly erodes the work that is done, for example there has been a history of cross borough training and sharing of good practice. This has allowed techniques and materials developed in some schools to be disseminated across the borough, but as individual staff move on the benefits are diluted, even where the materials have been incorporated into schemes of work. Paradoxically, measures taken in light of the OFSTED inspection have exacerbated this situation. Despite many reported criticisms of local inspectors (not all specific to Islington) they did provide a focus for inter-school activities, specifically subject panels. With their changed role of highlighting areas of failure for heads, the borough has lost a means of school curriculum development.
Last year there was a lot of talk about a package of support for Islington teachers, but the rhetoric has had no discernible impact - quite the reverse, as it happens, as teachers have been excluded from consultation on major developments, policies such as absence monitoring have been reintroduced in an inappropriate way in many schools and of course the Government Green Paper has not cheered anyone up. The exception seems to be the support for NQT's, about which there appear to have been no complaints, although we may not be certain until July.
There is very little effective encouragement for teachers to join a "failing" LEA, albeit relaunched in its outsourced form, to join any inner city school if pay may be linked to pupil results or to work in a school in danger of a "failing" label where a career may be blighted by a "fresh start".
Education Action Zones, Excellence in Cities and other initiatives which have preceded them may bring in extra sources of funding, but the effects are often short term. When the money stops or the infrastructure disappears, the projects lose momentum and peter out, leaving only the expertise of the teaching staff as a resource. If good practice is developed in one area, there needs to be a sustained forum in which it is shared and resources available to implement it elsewhere.
What is most definitely not needed is the continual tinkering at the edges of problems - changes to school days or curricula simply because that latest press release promotes it. There have been too many initiatives which are little more than gimmicks without any supporting evidence which should not even have been considered. Too often the drastic medicines prescribed for our schools have been as bad or worse than the supposed ailments. Instead some time for consolidation and recovery is needed - and this is not so different to schools across the country.
In summary Islington needs to value its committed teaching staff at a time when skills lost are not easily replaced. NASUWT is not aware of any cases where schools have been turned around (in the context of exam results) simply by replacement of a headteacher or wholesale replacement of teaching staff.
The targets set for CEA@Islington are based on the LEA targets which were not directly derived from those set by school governors. CEA@Islington may see these as "challenging but achievable", but we are not so sure. If there is any pressure on teachers to agree or reach these targets, recruitment and retention of staff will be affected, as will the level of disputes. Alternatively some schools may attempt to divest themselves of "difficult" children.
The NASUWT considers that the successful avoidance of friction between CEA@Islington and the LEA could be a major factor in the sustained improvement of Islington schools. Indeed, OFSTED has cited problems in political leadership as one of the main factors in the failure of LEAs. There must be a clear and consistent line to avoid confusion, contradiction and waste. It may be that the education department has to accept polices in schools as items that it cannot change and fit them as they are into a scheme of lifelong learning. That is not to say that that elected members should not have an input into education, but that terms of reference and responsibility need to be very clearly defined.
Furthermore, the institutions set up must be robust, with cross party support. There is no point investing the energies of whole organisations if they are swept away in the wake of the Local Government Bill.
Whatever is set up must have input from serving teachers - from those who have recent and relevant classroom experience. A commission which advises an Education Committee without this may have limited credibility. Recent attempts to consult with teachers have shown that there is little understanding of how schools operate within the town hall.
There are many things which are desirable, but there is a genuine need to talk to and support teachers. Making the contract with CEA@Islington work is more important than scoring political points, but should not be allowed to upset relationships within schools. Miracles are not possible, especially when our greatest successes leave the borough aged eleven, but sustained improvement, even in the light of new influxes of pupils with varying needs, may be, if Islington's teachers are supported.
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